My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today’

It is not unusual for a record label to release material it has “in the can” after an artist has left for another label. What is unusual is for that material to be top-flight and perhaps even better than the artist’s current musical releases. A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today is the first of two albums in which Haggard and Capitol wave goodbye to each other. The album made its chart debut on October 15, 1977, approximately five months after the release of his first album for MCA, Ramblin’ Fever.

Since the album didn’t have the promotional push of Capitol Records behind it, #28 was as high on the album charts as it would get and the singles released (“A Workin’ Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today”, “Making Believe” , and ”Running Kind”) all languished between #12 and #16 on the Billboard Country charts. Despite that the album remains one of my favorites.

More so than on his most recent Capitol releases, this album was founded on the blues. Since Haggard was already gone from Capitol, I assume that Ken Nelson was the guiding force behind the songs chosen for this album. If so, he did a magnificent job of protecting Hag’s legacy.

The album opens up with the title song, a song which echoes the sentiments of working people everywhere:

“A working man can’t get nowhere today
A working man ain’t got no time to play
Today I work my fanny off and leave it lay
A working man can’t get nowhere today”

The next track is one familiar to country fans of my generation and older, a song which was a major hit for Kitty Wells and Emmylou Harris, the Jimmy Work-penned “Making Believe”. An older generation would remember “Blues Stay Away From Me” as a major hit for Alton & Rabon Delmore.

Life is full of misery
Dreams are like a memory
Bringing back your love that used to be

Some have referred to the Delmore Brothers recording of this song as the first real rock and roll song; I think that is pushing it a bit, but it certainly is an excellent (and depressing song).

“Got A Letter From My Kid Today” was an old Tin Pan Alley song, with lyrics by Hy Zaret, who also wrote the Al Hibbler hit “Unchained Melody”. Bob Wills recorded and released it during the early years of WW2 but shellac shortages limited its distribution:

“Got a letter from my kid today
They let me read a line or two
I lost my teddy bear, I can’t remember where
Daddy is he there with you?”

“When My Last Song Is Sung” is a Haggard original, a highly introspective song about a singer looking back at his career and giving thanks to his maker. “Moanin’ The Blues” is the Hank Williams classic – not one of Hag’s stronger efforts but a nice recording anyway.

Merle Haggard’s boyhood idol was Lefty Frizzell. “Goodbye Lefty” is Merle’s goodbye to his recently departed idol and mentor. The song is a little gimmicky, working in various Lefty Frizzell song titles into the lyrics, but it works and is a thoughtful tribute to one of the greatest country singers of all time:

“I’d love to hear a jukebox play ‘I love you a thousand ways’
Or ‘If you’ve got the money I’ve got the time’
I’d walk a mile for mom and dad and the good times that we had
‘Look what thoughts will do’ when you sing ‘old pal of mine’.”

“Blues For Dixie” is a song recorded by Bob Wills in 1947 that has a Dixieland Jazz feel but a lyric consistent with the blues. “Running Kind” was a single that probably could have been a big hit with the proper promotional push behind it. Like many of Haggard’s best songs, it reflects the angst in his soul:

“I was born the running kind, leaving always on my mind
Home was never home to me at anytime
Every front door found me open I would find the back door open
There just had to be a lesson for the running kind

Within me there’s a prison, surrounding me alone
As real as any dungeon with a wall of stone
I know running’s not the answer, but running’s been my nature
And a part of me that keeps me moving on”

The best songs spring from unhappiness, despair and uneasiness. While this fact has made for some great songs, it also explains why it took Haggard so long to ever really settle down.

The title of “I’m A White Boy” is much less controversial than the title might suggest. Merle could easily have titled it ‘I’m A Poor Boy’ although the lyrical value would have been affected.

Haggard was always at his best when singing blues-based lyrics and this album gives him some outstanding songs to sink his teeth into. Haggard had gotten into a rut with his previous three or four Capitol albums, and the first two MCA albums Rambling Fever and My Farewell To Elvis really didn’t pull him out of it, although an artist rebirth was just around the corner.

Capitol would dredge up one more Haggard album before giving up, a tribute to Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell titled The Way It Was in ‘51.

Grade: A

2 responses to “Album Review: Merle Haggard – ‘A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today’

  1. Ken Johnson October 20, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    I can’t say that I share your overall enthusiasm for this compilation but I do agree that several of the tracks were stronger than Merle’s new MCA recordings at that time. You are correct that Ken Nelson produced most of these tracks with three noted exceptions.

    “Making Believe” is the absolute standout track for me. Hag’s voice just soars above the solid country backing. This is the oldest track on the compilation gleaned from an April 12, 1971 session. It shared a slot on the singles chart with it’s “A” side “Running Kind” produced in Nashville by Frank Jones in 1975. A throwback to Merle’s “prison song” days, had it not competed for airplay with a new Haggard single on MCA both sides could have climbed much higher than #12. I liked this one a lot too.

    “Blues Stay Away From Me” would have been a much stronger without the electric piano. I never cared for it much when I first heard it on this album when it was first released and it sounds extremely dated today. Too bad because Hag’s vocal is superb on this 1972 Fuzzy Owen production.

    I agree that this version of “Moanin’ The Blues” from 1972 is not exceptional but it’s always great to hear Hag sing a Hank Williams song. Likewise for Bob Wills’ “Got A Letter From My Kid Today” from late 1973. “Blues For Dixie” recorded in 1972 was intended for the I Love Dixie Blues” studio album. But when Haggard opted instead for the live recording it remained unissued until resurrected for this compilation.

    “Goodbye Lefty” was recorded the month after Merle’s idol passed away from a stroke at the young age of 47 on July 19, 1975. Merle was extremely distressed by the fact that in his later years Lefty Frizzell had not received the acclaim and accolades that many of his contemporaries like Eddy Arnold had received. Lefty was also in severe financial distress. As you pointed out knowing the emotional connection that Merle had to his musical mentor gives the song far more emotional impact.

    Merle’s rare religious introspection on the lyrics of “When My Last Song Is Sung” and the Bob Wills style muted-trumpet arrangement recorded in 1974 makes it a standout track for me.

    “I’m A White Boy” produced by Fuzzy Owen was the first Capitol single that failed to chart for Haggard since his earliest days with the label. Recorded and released in 1972 it ended a string of 21 consecutive top ten singles dating back to “Swinging Doors” in 1966. Not sure what Hag was going for lyrically unless he just wanted to have a reason to say “hump and get it” on a recording. The melody really jams so it’s too bad that the lyrics are so lame. “A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today” falls into this same category of odd lyrics with “bustin’ my rear” and “work my fanny off.” I played this song on the radio when it was a current single but it never garnered the amount of requests that “Workin’ Man Blues” did. Both songs are not Haggard’s best work.

    It’s always great when unissued tracks for an artist of Merle Haggard’s stature are unveiled. But it also makes you realize why some tracks were overlooked the first time around.

  2. Pingback: Delmore Brothers – Blues Stay Away From Me « Throughhisown's Weblog

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